Nowhere is the shift in pandemic-era travel and the industry’s nascent recovery more visible than in Elkhart County, Indiana, a collection of gritty factory towns that is a two-hour drive east of Chicago. Among its plants are manufacturers of recreational vehicles, RVs.
Elkhart workers, to RV dealers across the country, are having one busy summer, as Americans seek road trips as an alternative to flying and long vacations, forcing manufacturing plants to ramp up production.
Some factories are keeping the assembly lines moving for as many as six days a week during extended shifts in order to meet the demand, according to Monika Geraci, senior manager, marketing strategy and operations at the RV Industry Association (RVIA).
This heightened demand is showing up in Elkhart County’s unemployment rate, which recently marked one of the biggest drops in the country. In May, Elkhart County’s jobless rate fell significantly to 11.9 percent, from nearly 30 percent a month earlier. Patrick Industries, a parts-maker for RVs, and Thor Industries, an RV manufacturer, are each based in the county.
The trend was not lost on Wall Street. Both Patrick and Thor saw their stocks shoot up by more than 200 percent in June from their low marks in March.
Indeed, airplane-wary travelers, combined with pent-up demand from months-long quarantines, are making RVs a rare bright spot for U.S. travel through road trips.
Skift Research from April showed that two-thirds of Americans expected their first trip after the outbreak to be a road trip. As cars provide greater opportunities for social distancing than public transportation, and with the spread of the virus picking up in recent weeks, more Americans may do this into the fall as well. After all, several schools have begun to announce at least a mix of remote and in-person learning for the upcoming semester, and many employees may continue to be working from home in the fall as well.
With this in mind, the RV Industry Association’s Geraci said her group is beginning to see interest in people possibly looking to work and learn from their RVs and that it has the potential to continue for a while.
The RVIA tracks unit shipments from manufacturers to dealers. While May’s percentage was lower than last year, Geraci said that was because manufacturers that reopened had to spend time ramping up by implementing safety guidelines, such as social distancing and cleaning. June’s numbers could better reflect the increased factory production.
“While numbers compared to last May show a 30 percent decrease, the reality is the RV industry is very strong right now. Many RV dealerships that were able to reopen their showroom reported record sales, but RV sales were heavily dependent on whether or not state stay-at-home orders had been lifted, something that varied state-by-state throughout the month of May,” said RV Industry Association President Craig Kirby in a company release. “Now that all states have reopened, coupled with continued media attention on RVs as a way to travel and maintain social distance, the outlook for the RV industry this summer is extremely bright.”
Heading into the pandemic, the RV industry was already doing well, according to Darryl Searer, president of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart. He pointed out that, although the industry might not have been headed for a record year, it looked like it was going to be a very good year in terms of sales, and units shipped to dealers.
From 2016 to 2019, the RV industry had its four best years on record in terms of unit shipments from manufacturers to dealers, with each year featuring over 400,000 shipments. There was, however, a 16 percent drop in shipments in 2019.
Searer said that four RV dealers on the hall’s board of directors, who’ve all been in business for about 50 years or more, each had the best May in the history of their dealerships coming out of the pandemic.